In defense of shiny new digital things (#jcarn)

By Steve Outing

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism (Twitter hashtag #jcarn), Lisa Williams is leading the show, and she has this question:

“Right now, nominations are open for the Online Journalism Awards. What qualities should awards like this endorse in an era of such tremendous change in the news industry?”

I’m a bit late, so I’ve had the opportunity to read some of the earlier entries. A common theme is that good, solid, hard-hitting journalism is a must for receiving OJA recognition, and where new technology comes in is for journalists to select the right (digital) technology to best communicate the story in innovative ways. It’s a consistent, logical message: Balance strong journalism with digital innovation. I can’t argue with that.

But I also picked up some disdain about ONA — indeed, about technology-focused and forward-thinking journalists — obsessing too much on “the latest shiny new thing” and downplaying the serious-journalism part. So here I get to veer off the common path and praise shiny new digital things that can be useful in the practice of journalism.

Clearly, no one (including me) is going to advocate ignoring or downplaying the great-journalism piece. But I like the shiny new things that today’s technologists foist on the market, especially those that have interesting and potentially powerful applications for journalism and storytelling.

Of course, I’m biased. My digital-media program at the University of Colorado Boulder serves, in part, as the horizon watcher for the Journalism & Mass Communication program. So it’s my job to take a look at all the shiny new digital things that come along and assess whether or not they might be useful to journalists (and non-journalists doing journalism-like things, like recording disasters and news events when they find themselves as eyewitnesses holding a phone capable of recording audio, video, taking photos, and sharing any of that instantly with the world).

Having done this for a good long time, I like to think that I can identify the new digital toys (um, I mean tools) that have the potential for significantly impacting how we practice journalism. Likewise, I can usually spot the ones that aren’t worth my enthusiasm. Of course, I’m not always right, and neither is anyone else who calls him/herself a media geek.

Again, I’m biased because of the work that I do, but I really wish that more publishers, editors, and journalists working in news organizations would take a more adventurous path and try (the most promising of the) shiny new things. Ditto for professors in journalism programs (and that includes the one where I work). Too many, in my experience, view it as a waste of their time and prefer to wait for others to prove that the latest new technology is important to journalism — then maybe they’ll climb on board.

Oh, Steve, I can hear the skeptics mutter as they read this, you’re just a gadget freak; you enjoy this, but we don’t! … But let’s think about why being a student of “emerging digital technology” is not just an idle pastime for those of us concerned about the future of journalism.

Consider the news industry. Newspapers have died, are dying; journalists by the thousands have been shown the door, and those jobs aren’t coming back. There’s a (small but) thriving new news landscape shaping up, but it’s still dwarfed by old media, and too often funded by foundation and philanthropic money because this new wave of news organizations is not yet sustainable without charity. On the former, slowness in adopting emerging digital technologies is one of the major reasons that the news industry is in such a mess today.

Consider journalism education. Sure, there are plenty of digital innovators teaching tomorrow’s journalists. But they remain the minority. If most journalism educators at colleges and universities focused a decent portion of their time on digital innovation, perhaps the “answers” to resurrecting a failed news industry would have been discovered by now — by faculty, students, and researchers in the higher-education system!

Consider, too, this old Apple TV commercial, “Think Different,” celebrating the innovators and the risk-takers:

Since I first moved from old news to an Internet career in 1994, the ones who “thought differently,” became fabulously wealthy, and invented new industries (thus disrupting old ones) have been in the technology sector, primarily. Journalists mostly “thought the same” about the digital revolution swirling around them, or “thought a little bit differently.” It’s little wonder, then, that our profession still struggles to find its way.

It’s not realistic to believe that journalists can suddenly “think different” to such a degree and achieve as much as the founders of Google, eBay, Twitter, Facebook, et al. But more modest and doable is to take risks and try out promising new digital technologies right away; experiment now, not tomorrow. Accept failures as part of the deal, and run with the successes.

Which leads (finally) back to the Online Journalism Awards. I’d like to see OJA’s organizers recognize and honor the risk takers in the profession. Such an award might not be given to an individual or organization that has yet chalked up a big success. But it is these people and companies that will lead the news industry through this rough digital transition and to success on the other side of the chasm.

I’d like to see OJA reward the misfits and the tinkerers within journalism. Without them guiding the news industry forward, there will be little great journalism on which to bestow awards.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!